The house, having been kept for generations now is abandoned. An old place built in the grand old style of the Victorian castle, filled with rooms, corridors, passages, strange in between places, and halls. Built for a nobleman in the backyard of the Seminoles, built in a garden where roses run free between broken topiaries.
The manner of the family’s departure is not known to me. I came later, long after, as blankets of dust are among my first memories of this place. I spent hours raising white clouds of particulate; forming minuscule tornadoes about the floor of the ballroom that looks out to the east side of the garden. I would view these storms from the ground and pretend to be a Kansas farmer, pretend that the dust mites trapped in the eddies were my cows going into the sky. Their flailing limbs and panicked cries made me despair. No milk this year! No, no, no! The clouds would settle and I always check the mites to see that they were uninjured. Since the family had gone, these beasts of the particulate had multiplied, I could count thousands on any day, and a cruel person might say that the death of one wasn’t a problem, wouldn’t even be noticed, but to hurt one wasn’t my desire. Sure desires leave us open to other meaner functions and it is my intention never to be a threat to anything in the house or outside of it.
I too am a guest of this house, like the spiders I see when I drift up to the chandelier. They often notice my disturbances below, and retreat back into their silken holes between the crevices of the chandelier’s steal anchor. I have wondered endlessly of these creatures. Were they here when the people danced below? Did they come later? Perhaps there had been servants to brush their webs away.
I also wonder about the mice in the cellars and the squirrels in the garden trees. The family wouldn’t approve of the mice, I picture them as a Victorian family with several daughters who, when bothered, would stand on top of chairs screaming. Nor would they approve of the roaches that feed on the wet insulation of the rafters. The roaches fear me, and scatter when I arrive, but I know what they’re about. I can see the chew marks in the dim red foam. The mice aren’t afraid of me, they don’t even notice me except when I move things or create dust storms.
The animals are the only things in the house. It has maybe fifty rooms, some in better condition than others. Some have rooms within rooms. The master bed is a curved suite with two bathrooms. Ivy has come in through the window of the first bathroom and gone down into the sink, cracking the pipes. Stained white tiles with blue eagles dominate the floor. They are rectangles fitted together in a repeating jigsaw that I have followed sometimes for hours, traveling the mortar like an ant on foot, or from dizzying aerial views, stretching my perception so that the titles look thousands of miles below. Dust never settles on the tiles because the busted window lets in a strong easterly breeze every night. I have seen birds perched on the rusty curtain rods during bad storms, but the angle is bad and the wind always drives them out.
The second bathroom is larger. It might have been the Main Bathroom, but I call it the second bathroom because I found the first one first. The second one used to have a locked door. I delighted in skipping through it, laughing that its purpose against me was stymied. I discovered I could travel through the door faster than my laugh and I invented a game.
I would speak on one side of the door and then race to the other and speak again, playing two sides of a conversation.
“Dear, are you okay in there?” I said, affecting a man’s voice.
“Yes,” as a woman, from the bathroom. “I just need to put on some make-up.”
“Make-up’s just nonsense,” man.
“I’m almost done,” woman.
“I’m late for work,” man.
This game ended when the door fell down. Years after inventing the game, I heard it fall while in another section of the house. When I arrived, I discovered ants had weakened the frame and the weight of the door had eventually snapped the entire frame in two. The first bathroom’s door is still intact, but the vines ruin the illusion that is vital to the game’s fun.
The master bedroom is between the two bathrooms and is still furnished as if the family only left for a weekend and forgot to return. It is a large room with curved windows overlooking the gardens. One window is cracked, but otherwise unblemished. A rotten king-sized bed occupies a corner. It is a fungal delight with mushrooms and molds attempting to strangle each other in a war that has been going on since a leak above the bed formed. It gives off a ripe biological odor. Ripe, is a good word for it. The carpet under the bed is free of molds and still looks new aside from dust. The molding and the walls are in perfect shape, though the window-side wall is covered in hideous pale-purple wallpaper. There are dead bedbugs behind the paper. They probably starved when the family left.
Outside the bedroom is a narrow hall with bedrooms on either side and a small alcove with a single chair and light bulb, both broken. The chair being anthropomorphized by me into being the saddest piece of furniture in the house. It looks like an exotic skeleton leaning in the dust with both its legs broken. The other bedrooms along the hall are nothing but shells, most being used for storage, as decayed or as not as they are wont to be. Once I found a bullet casing resting under a tumbled bureau drawer. Empty, but still shiny, I imagine that the owner of the house went fox hunting with bullets cased in shells like these.
Down the hall to the stairs. The stairs to the ballroom, the ballroom to a servant retreat. This retreat is a small room with a sink, a rusty metal shelf to prepare drinks on, and a dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter goes to a kitchen far below in the bowels of the house. The servants must have used it to get wine or champagne up to the guests dancing around the ballroom. Dustless that would have been, with a spider-free chandelier, and windows that let light in instead of ivy.
A sight! A blonde lady dances with a handsome youth. She is the Reverend Hansen’s daughter. He is Corporal Taylor. Their love is forbidden because Hansen has told her never to love a military man. Around and around they go, crystaled in the chandelier’s light, dancing through the other couples, the envy of all, when Crash! It is the Reverend come in by the outside door. The crowd mumbles, the men shuffle on their feet, the woman rock on their heels. Gloves and fans go to faces. The Reverend is a thunderhead passing between these pretty clouds. His eyes are lightning, his lips thunder. The guests part.
And still she dances with her man, unaware the music has stopped, replaced by the whispers of the guests and the crackle of her father’s teeth.
I mime the positions, all the positions. I am the Reverend, the daughter, the suitor. The guests are all eddies of dust.
“No, father, no!” I call out and the eddies tremble at the reply, not in Language but in Thunder. I make the house tremble.
“Daughter! Daughter, how could you be so foolish! Dare you think your ditched Curfew would not be unnoticed? Daughter! Daughter! A military man is no man for a woman. Waiting and waiting for a husband who is away, across distant deep and dark seas, never to return or to return maimed?”
From downstairs I hear a mouse shrieking. The thunder has disturbed it. The eddies collapse. They retain their party dress for a few seconds before they settle to the floor. I follow them, but do not stop at the floor, seeping down through the wood work and then into a sewing room.
Fabric lines the walls, all white; bleached: ruined. A sewing machine sits silent sentinel in the corner and the mouse shivers behind it.
“Ere, ere,” I say. “What are you afraid of?”
It freezes, nose and ears down, hair up, but relaxes upon seeing nothing. Perfectly safe to chew its holes, it might be thinking, because that is what it was doing before my theatrics. There is cloth stuck in the machine and on this the mouse worries. I see other holes in the scrapes about the wall. Like the Poem says, mice are a disorderly lot, there is no method to the arrangement of holes. Or maybe the Poem says that about cockroaches. I could head to the library to check. But I won’t. If I were to doubt myself all the time, I would not have time to play. Trust in others begins with the self, so I never doubt or double check, unless I know I’m wrong.
I affectionately ruffle like a breath across the mouse’s fur and then depart down to the garden to see what the birds are doing today. The mouse barely notices the puff of air and I’m gone before it starts to shred the paper again.
Birds have always made nests in the garden’s trees. The part of the garden behind the house has a patio for small functions. A gazebo entombed by vines stands further out, and beyond that is the hedge maze. It must have been a grand maze in the past, full of twisting paths and clever dead ends. Now these passages have grown in and the hedge maze is all hedge and no maze. At the far side of the maze is an apple orchard. The birds, tiny black speckled things, dart around the trees mocking the shrew-like animals bellow.
Hepszcord is what I call the leader of the shrews. He wants the birds very badly, wants to eat them, is tired of mice. He and his wife watch constantly for the birds to make a mistake.
Today I visit a nest I’ve been watching for a month now. The little chicks now have feathers and I want to see them take their first flight. That will happen soon. Mama bird is at the nest, no sign of Papa, he’ll be out collecting insects. The birds seem oddly nervous today. Perhaps the mom had a scrape with Hepszcord and that’s why she guards the nest instead of finding food with her husband.
I won’t speak to them today, they’re too on edge. I can hear the babies’ hearts in their chest, something has them spooked, more than the shrew-things could do.
Nervously, I look for the owl or the cat, whatever has them scared, meaning to give it a scare, but except for Hepszcord there isn’t a predator anywhere about.
An accident? Surely not. I begin to look for Papa Bird. Up and down the gardens, I look, every tree or hedge. Even in Hepszcord’s stomach, until he becomes uncomfortable. I can’t find Papa Bird anywhere.
I skip along water and weeds and here finally I find the little fellow. Dead on the second story balcony, dropped from where he hit the window, right outside the ballroom.
There are no candles in the house, so the funeral has to be in the daylight not the evening like I would prefer. Funerals strike me as more majestic in twilight.
I invited the birds, but they’re not likely to come as they have no language and my spoken personal invitation startled them badly.
I have buried twenty birds in the gardens counting Papa Bird. I am the pallbearer, provide the offertorium, and am all the mourners.
The little body I bear aloft. It seems lighter than the feathers that make it up. He was always slight, small for his kind, speckled with white, a star-spot above his left eye. The funeral procession starts at the entry hall and proceeds through the house and out the back to an area I think used to be a sandbox. I raise dust and clouds of dirt to be spectators. It takes effort to keep so many clouds in person-shape, but this is a state funeral and I will not disrespect anybody I watched hatch and grow and raise a family by skimping on attendance.
“I’ll knock the windows out tomorrow,” I tell him. I’ve spoken to him twice before and he flew away both times. Not now though, if only. “Well,” I say. Then repeat: “Well.”
I had worked out a little poem to go with the funeral. I was going to sing it as I carried him along, but with all my creative vestments I couldn’t do so much, and now do not feel like singing. If I had lips, they would tremble. If I had eyes they would shake. But I have neither. Curse my emptiness! Grief is the way we cut ourselves to make our losses felt. I would take all the physical knives of the world to escape a purely mental grief that is both complete and unreal. I don’t know any hymn strong enough to bring the bird back, nor am I smart enough to conceive of one.
At the sandbox, my sand eddies all bow their heads as I lower the tiny body into a hole that I dug while the bird rested in state. I say a trifle of a eulogy and mutter agreements all around as I push sand over the body. I have all the mourners say their goodbyes, myself last. A pretty good funeral, I judge.
Knocking out the glass will come later. I have to keep Hepszcord from digging up the body until the sun goes down. He’s not a bad fellow, just one of appetite. Given a chance, he would eat every bird in the garden, and devoured birds can’t have funerals. He’s clever, but he can’t see me and so every time he approaches the little mound covering the bird, I drop in behind him and make a bang. Hepszcord keeps trying, poor fellow, but I don’t need sleep and he does. Eventually he goes home.
“Another one dead,” I say after heading to the library. I address this to the books. I don’t expect a response and I get none. This place is in the center of the house. Rot hasn’t touched its carpeted floors, plush floors, or the books; hundreds of volumes. The ceiling is painted with the zodiac; the old gods clash overhead. I come to read every night, and to scare away silverfish if there are any.
“Dead and gone,” I continue. “I’ve been dead before and likely will be again, but for the others I would preserve them all rather than lose a single one.”
Silence. The books can speak with their words, but not with their voices.
“Fine, be silent,” I say, selecting a volume I’ve never read before. I drift through its pages sampling the ink.
It’s some horrid thing about murder. I flick myself away and drift into another volume.
necessary for all mortal creatures to pass their genetics on. This is their primary function. At their sum all biological entities are vehicles for genetic survival. All else about them is pretense or a matter of effectiveness. It would seem that all genes need is to copy themselves and anything else is extraneous, yet in a microcosm with finite resources, the moment any molecule becomes more efficient at replication than any other, the rest must become more efficient or perish. Thus the arm-race begins.
This book is Volume I of On Mortals by Tel. It is a cruel book. Tel believes those that die deserve it. I cannot out think his argument. It does not strike me as fallacious. I only know it must be wrong because there is no heart in it. This Tel could stand beside Papa Bird today, dry-eyed, even bored. A great thinker with no heart. A man who would not kill an animal but wouldn’t save it from starvation either.
I come out of this book. Surely in a library this large, one book could give comfort to the bereaved. I skim the spines, sometimes so close the embossed lettering looks like valleys of gold between blue and red hills. Histories, fictions, tracts, essays, theses, all blur. I don’t want to read tonight. I have no patience for it. It is my habit to read in the evening and haven’t varied in it for twenty years or more. A distraction--.
And there it is. A slamming sound from the ballroom.
Intruders? I think.
Puzzled. I haven’t ever had any visitors other than animals. But the noise is that of somebody slamming the ballroom balcony door. Humans! People like those in the books. To get up there the guests must would have to navigate a set of very degraded steps. I will have to warn them not to go back that way.
I rush to the ballroom, going through walls in the most direct route.
“Hello!” I say trying to sound inviting.
The ballroom is empty. No footsteps in the dust, no open door. The door is even locked as it has always been since I remember. Why wouldn’t it be? I am the only one here capable of unlocking doors and I almost never do.
But I did hear a sound. My hearing is good enough that I can hear the roaches chattering in the floor vents. A door did slam.
Curious, I stretch my senses in fifteen directions. I only find dust mites and a type of wood beetle that has become more common as the seasons warm.
“Hello,” I tell the beetle. Too dumb to recognize a voice as anything other than a puff of air, it keeps turning its section of wood beam into pulp.
“I’ll be watching you,” I say to the door and, since I am here, I begin to break the windows.
I have found a play in the library. It is called Y el Romance and is a silly thing about a couple who get mistaken for royalty. Memorization is easy for me because I have a system for it. I repeat what I want to remember out loud until I make a mistake, then I return to the beginning again and repeat until I make no mistakes. The play is in Spanish, but I have memorized two Spanish primers I found in the library, Diario Español and La Guía de Brooklyn a los Españoles, and have the mastery of a small child.
I’ve been playing the parts outside on the event patio for the benefit of Hepszcord and his family. They’re being attentive today, perhaps because of the soft lights and smells I’ve included as stage dressing. He and his wife have brown fur and cream-colored bellies. The babies are all brown. Their eyes are black marbles, noses black velvet, teeth thin white needles. I know they are more like stoats than shrews, but the small square heads and delicate noses look like that of shrews shown in some of the library books.
“Gracias, señora ,” I say as Erme, the play’s protagonist. Erme is pretending to be a kind for the benefit of the villainess. “ Su gracia y su elegancia sólo se pueden comparar con su belleza, pero ¡piense en el escándalo! ¡Piense en mi esposa! Se ha puesto muy nerviosa aquí fuera de nuestro país.”
Then as the wife who has just entered: “ Mi querido, aquí lo tienes. El Sr. Pommargree sigue tratando de darme este diamante. Es tan grande como mi cabeza …”
Hepszcord nods along. I create perfume for the ladies and emulate sweat for the man. It’s not a good imitation, I have no references. The shrew family doesn’t mind. Hopefully they don’t think it smells of meat. My grand play will be hard to finish with Hepszcord in the center of it.
“Hepszcord,” I say, expecting him to run. He doesn’t, so I continue. “I’d like to thank you for coming to my play.”
He thinks the voice is part of the show, but I keep speaking.
“If you weren’t a carnivore, I’d bring you food, possibly the grapes that grow on the other side of the house. Nobody watches my shows but me.”
He grins, stops to nuzzle his wife, and grins again. I resume the play. Erme continues his charade.
“¡He sido engañado! Engañados,” Mr. Pommagree says inside the play, but now outside I feel distracted. Something is still bothering me about the ballroom door. I dismiss the thought. Hepszcord is having a good time and I don’t want any misgivings of mine slipping into the play ruining his fun. He’s purring at Mr. Pommegree’s voice. I was going for comic, shoving what I imagine to be a British accent, a la Bernard Shaw into Spanish words, but if Heps thinks the voice is pleasant, I’ll not change it. Mr. Hepszcord is generous indeed. I finish in a burst of energy, feeling like what I imagine running up a hill and having to catch ones breath is like. I mime an invisible bow to Hepszcord and his family and drift away. They look disappointed.
“We’ll do this again,” I say. They look even grumpier now.
“Good fellows, those,” I say, floating up to the balcony.
The windows are gone now, reduced to jagged edges on the balcony. I amuse myself with cracking them. The snap-snap sound make me think of crunching leaves, it’s like I’m stepping on frozen leaves.
The door is as I left it. Mahogany, weather damaged on the outside, old-fashioned lock rusted shut, a picture of elegance faded out over time. I force it open and then slam it. I listen from both sides. The same sound as yesterday. The exact same.
I hum about this. Foolish, I decided. That’s what I feel. I was excited because I thought I might meet a human. I have questions infinite for those beings who write the books. Eating, breathing, sleeping, what are they like? What is sex like? Why are all those things worth writing about? Why would humans spend so much time writing about things they already know? Is the point to describe humanity to itself?
Foolishness has shifted to disgruntlement. I float down the dumbwaiter to the kitchen. It’s a mess. At some time long distant, the food in the refrigerator had been consumed by a virulent white fungus, but upon eating all the food, itself was consumed by a viscous pool of black bacteria. This is the roaches’ lair. They scatter as I enter. They’re not fooling me. Egg cases behind the cabinets, excreta on the floor. They’re the only animals in the house that can sense me when I do not wish to be notice, but they have no idea of the true range of my sense. Cowering beneath floorboards does not hide them from me. I cluck my disapproval before drifting to the first floor hallway.
This part of the house used to contain the servant quarters. I come down here rarely because the mice and roaches have made it irksomely filthy. I don’t see any mice today, but I do observe strips of fabric from the sewing room littering the floor. The place is a midden heap. I make more noise to show the mice how displeased I am with them. If they are listening I hope they will take the hint.
The only reason to come down here is the baby’s room. It is completely bare except for a crib that looks like it was shoved into the corner for storage. There probably never was a baby, but as sole owner of the house, I won’t give up naming privileges. I come down to the room to mope. Today I have a lot to mope about. I compose a list.
“There’s Papa Bird, the door upstairs, this new uneasiness,” I say, “and I’m getting old.”
“How old?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “Old!”
I stop. I’ve spotted something odd. There is a trail of ants along the wall. Not unusual for the house, unusual for this room. The animals know that this is my room and generally leave it alone. That is why there aren’t any mouse leavings here.
But here is a trail of ants and they’re all dead. Frozen in lockstep, they simply stopped what they were doing and died. Probably all the way back to their nest, somewhere in the gardens.
I try to see what is wrong with them, but while I can make myself small enough to see the little dead mites on their scales, I cannot see individual cells.
The room is soiled. I move out it careful not to pass through the walls. The roaches can have it. I want no part of it anymore.
The Steps, the steps, the steps
Are all that matter in life
From the small steps
To the longer late in life
The people we pass and nod to
Will walk with us for awhile
But to take a route and stick to it
Is the hardest choice
It’s the steps that matter
We will all of us get
To where we will stay
Walking or still
But it’s the steps, the steps, the steps
I know not whose poem that was, but I, able to play at making footprints have made no steps at all. Neither literally, or figuratively as in the poem. I float above the dust, noting how if I touch nothing, nothing stirs. From this distance I cannot see the individual motes that comprise the dust, nor the mites to whom the dust is the world. All I see is just an unused hallway void of the human establishment necessary to keep it clean.
Alone, I’ve always sought to entertain myself. Alone, this has been a challenge. I’ve always been successful inventing dramatic scenes, creating and dissolving people for the roles I require, but I have always been alone.
Now, dusty halls comfort in their stillness.
Yesterday, I caught the dust twitching in the ballroom and not by my hand. Yes! The ballroom! One of my places, a place I have decorated, where I have danced, laughed, and cried alone.
Here’s the problem. I am below that room now and I can hear the knocking on the outside door. Loud rhythmic pounding, not loud enough to shake the house, but loud enough to shake me, indeed. There is nobody at the door. I’ve checked. Every time I head up to check the pounding ceases. I am quick, it doesn’t matter. Dozens of times I’ve passed through walls, risen up through the floor, come through the ceiling. The noise always stops before I can see the door. Inspection reveals nothing. It is still the same mahogany door. But if I could catch the culprit, what would I see? What culprit can move so fast I, who have often beaten sound itself, can’t catch them?
Up again? I wonder. If I stay in the ballroom, would the sound cease altogether? Or would it begin again? Maybe the door would shake on its hinges, no shaker visible. This thought is worse. No, no. I will go to the library where the sound will be muted. I can catch up on the politic of those who are gone. Supernatural phenomena will be confined to one entity in the house. Me. A random noise will stop if ignored.
So, down to the library, where I spin the large globe that sits near the history section. There was a game I called Destination. I would spin the globe and stop it on a random point. I then pretended to be the people from that location. I try this now, but I can’t invest my frivolity. It’s gone. I make some booming noises to counteract the other sound, but it goes on and on. Softened by the library walls, it is no less persistent for its softness. It sounds like the door will fall in.
I slide into the ballroom, expecting the pounder to be standing on the broken door, arms on his hips, insane laughter on his lips.
The door is flattened, but there is no intruder. Instead, I see half a dozen little corpses scattered around the room. Birds of the garden, necks broken as if they had all slammed into the glass. There is no glass, no windows; they are all still dead. As I scramble to check for survivors, a new feeling comes. A new feeling I’m not used to. A feeling of not being alone, a feeling of being watched.
No song birds sing this morning. Those that are left are aware of a tremendous robbery to their kindred. Sixteen of their extended family murdered. As what? An attention grabbing ploy? Ere log my attention be docile, yet beware those who turn its keep!
A state funeral for all the birds. One after another, all night if I have to! No other shall intrude. This uninvited other shall not win because I am the one who rules the house. I was the one who came in by the baby’s room and who looks after the house’s dusty halls and have for years.
I put the door back up. I fixed it. The windows are impossible to fix, but I put up some old cloth to keep the ballroom enclosed. It’s pink cloth with faded teddy bears on it, but as non-threatening as it is, the message is clear: Keep Out.
I shake the house, I do every display I can think of that is aggressive. I direct my attention to the ballroom: hooting, yelling, buzzing; making ratcheting, wailing noises. Silence rolls back as if nothing is there. I am sure the intruder is not gone because I can sense the wrongness from that side of the house. I’m not sure if it has gotten into the ballroom proper or is stuck on the balcony. For an hour, I parade around the ballroom bellowing anything that comes to me, before settling down to do the funerals.
The guest list is more extensive this time, some of my dust clouds are made dignitaries by strips of cloth floating around their middles. I conduct everything in absolute silence. I don’t mime the rubbing of eyes or slapdash tears. I don’t create murmurs of grief. I float the birds to the sandbox and deposit them in one mass grave. I do not make a speech. Hepszcord isn’t present and that’s good, because I don’t want the other to know about my shrew friend, unless I can figure out a way to warn him and get him out of the garden.
I go back to the ballroom to inspect my arrangements. The door is still holding and the cloth hangs magisterially in all its ratty trappings. Yet still I can feel the other, just outside my perceptions, particularly around the edges of the room and especially at the windows.
“Don’t think I can’t sense you,” I say.
There is no reply.
Curious to see exactly how much one can see through the worn areas of the fabric, I stop my talking to check. The cloth might necessitate patches. Sewing sounds tedious, but I do not know myself as a slacker and I believe I could do all the work in a single day. I look through a lower hole, a worn spot that has only a few threads to recommend it to the rest of the grand design. The threads are far enough apart that I can see the crumbling railing on the far edge of the balcony. That’s too far, patches are necessary.
The view of the railing is blocked by something dark passing in front of my hole. Suddenly there’s an eye filling the space. Just an eye, blue.
I start back, surprised I am capable of such a physical action as being startled, and then I am through the cloth.
But the balcony is empty. I spin, trying to find the owner of the eye. Nobody, nothing, just me.
I turn a full circle again. Nothing. I am alone out here and very exposed. I drift back into the ballroom.
Tentatively, I check the hole. The eye is gone and doesn’t return. After a full minute, I sink through the floor to get the fabric for the patches.
The sewing room has supplied for this sort of job. Needles, thread, a thimble that I won’t need because I have no fingers to prick, some old scissors that look as if they’ve been through a war and a murder, and plenty of fabric. Unlike me, they can’t go through walls, so I open the door and float the supplies up to the ballroom. Classical distaff activities have this to recommend them: sewing is mostly mindless and it takes up time.
I start at noon and end at midnight. The other hasn’t bothered me except for once. Jerky steps plodded the balcony a little after I began. I can still feel its presence. It strengthens with the darkness. The moon is up, but its light is so dimmed by the cloth that it barely reaches the floor.
The cloth itself has become a screen. The trees and balcony railing produce weird distorted shadows across its surface. One section of the crumbling railing looks like a man crouched down among them. As I notice it and begin to fixate with a “It really does look like a man. It really does,” it begins to move. The movement could be due to wind, it is slow slight, the man shape being a creation of trees mixing strangely with the balcony.
I dart forward through the fabric. Where the man would be is empty. It could still be a tree or something further out. Not likely, but shadows can be carried distances. I go back in.
The man shadow is now standing up by the window. No longer in profile, I can see it is a well-muscled thing, hands balled into fists. I watch it closely. This might be the only time I will have a clear look at my opponent.
The pounding starts. The entire window frame, a thing made of oak and securely fastened, shakes right to where it is attached to the wall. The man shape doesn’t move as the frame quakes. I leap forward to brace the it. If the frame fails, the patch work is wasted. I don’t vibrate along with it, but each blow is powerful enough that I feel the wood straining in my grip.
“Stop it!” I roar.
Diffuse laughter comes in through the window. The blows fall faster now, a wooden crack split’s the silence and the frame, weakened by beetles and time comes down around me. I don’t see the Other, but I sense it pour inside like viscous syrup. I begin to shout, but there’s nothing to focus on. Around me the laughter booms.
The Other has the ballroom. I can hear it at all times walking around the wooden floor, knocking on the doors, wrapping on the walls, and laughing. I’ve only been back up once; the place is filled with bird corpses. All the song birds in the garden, the owls that trouble them, pigeons and crows from the farm one over. The room is spoiled, it smells of death.
I try to keep my routine intact. I still read at night, but the games have stopped entirely and I prefer to go through walls rather than traveling hallways. I am starting to spot dead mice in the halls, and I wish to avoid them.
The gardens are surprisingly clear from the Other’s influence considering that’s where I think it comes from. There are no birds anymore, but the gray squirrels still hope around the larger trees.
Today, Hepszcord comes to me right away. He’s anxious about something,
“I can’t talk to you,” I say.
He orientates himself to my voice and starts squeaking. His paws stamp impatiently. He walks a few paces, then stops looking back over his shoulder at the place where he thinks I must be.
“Okay, I’ll follow.”
He leads me to the hedge maze. I follow him around bends (and turns and under the plants themselves) through the maze. I could cut through it all, but Hepszcord can’t being physical, so I take the long way riding as a mote on his shoulder.
We stop at a clearing, what would have once been the center of the maze. The fountain marking the exact center has been broken by Kentucky bluegrass, ornate tiles are scattered about, a dead tree choked by the hedge leans askance to one side.
Hepszcord isn’t interested in any of this. He leads me around the fountain.
There’s a dead fox behind here. It is not decayed though it must have been dead a long time. There are flies, but they are dead too. The fox’s filth permeates the whole area, I feel dirty just looking at it. I can feel it in the ground, the flora, the tiles of the fountain; it culminates in the fox. Heps chirps and then flees. Having shown me what he must, his courage leaves with him.
I don’t want to touch the fox, so I get a large stick from the tree and prod the dead thing until it turns over. It’s stiff, its features twisted. I begin an inspection. It has all the things one expects of foxes. Fleas, a tick, a broken dew claw, some sort of rash on the hind foot, but nothing fatal. The tick and fleas are all dead, caught in mid-action. I could investigate inside the fox, but I’m not willing to get that close.
The eyes open: blue.
I float away as the corpse fox twitches. This has to be taken care of. I cannot let such a thing wander about the gardens. The horror it fills me with is only a prelude to what it will do if I leave it be. There is a maintenance shed on the far side of the garden. One of the things it has in it is kerosene stored in little glass jars, at least fifty jars. Matches can be found in a busted chifforobe in one of the bedrooms. Matches first.
I come into conflict with the Other the moment I arrive. It has knocked the outside door to the ballroom down and used it as a battering ram to break down the door to the small serving area with the dumbwaiter. It now has access to the kitchen and the main wet wall. If it gets into the pipes it will have access to the entire house.
I come in like a whirlwind bringing all the dust I can lift behind me. The dumbwaiter must be blocked. Wood from the doors, splinters, glass shards, anything I can carry come in with me. I breach the room and the Other attacks. Corpse birds take flight and penetrate my personal space. The voice of the Other is loud and sharp, making thunderous gurgles and snuffles.
The ballroom is much changed. The walls are stained and the wood floors have been shattered. I pull up these fragments and dive down the dumbwaiter shaft. The debris tries to follow and gets caught up, jamming the entire works. I hear a howl above.
It sounds both dry and wet, at times choking on itself. The whole house shakes and far about I hear part of the roof collapse. I hurry to get those matches.
The kerosene takes more work. The shed has a very solid lock and a metal door. I can’t break the lock even if I hit it so I pry it open using myself as a lever.
I take a single jar of kerosene and float it to the center of the maze. I come in low with my possessions trailing behind me.
The fox is standing on top of the fountain now, surrounded by half a dozen dead song birds. The whole place feels allied against me. Even the dead tree glares.
I hear a roar from the house and the fox picks it up almost instantly. The birds charge at the kerosene. I spin the jar away from them. The tree attacks, all its limbs moving to block the jar. Taking aim, I wretch the jar in orbit about me and release it. My aim is true, the jar shatters on the fox’s head.
It tries to bite me, but there’s nothing to chew. I strike a match and the dead thing is instantly aflame. It runs into the tree, and that catches too, then the hedges. I back off, watching as the whole maze goes up, then the vines, then the garden.
The garden! Oh no! Hepszcord! I bolt faster than I’ve ever gone before.
I know where his burrow is. It is a hole in the ground, modest for a shrew.
Hepszcord is outside with his family watching the hedges with wide-eyed incomprehension, eyes reflecting the fire.
“Flee!” I say.
Heps chirps once: his wife and him grabbing their babies by the neck and then running away.
Almost safe, but the Other arrives howling. Heps ducks and weaves, but it is not enough. His body twists, the baby he carries falls. The Other hoots in triumph and spirits the shrew toward the house. I follow angrier than I’ve ever been.
I come in through the ballroom. The ceiling has collapsed coving all those dead birds, but I can still smell them. Crushed and useless, the Other has abandoned them and without its power they have begun to rot.
I hear the Other as it slams the master bedroom door. I come up the stairs intent on destroying everything between me and Hepszcord.
The Other is laughing.
I crash into the door, for the first time ever I’m stymied by physicality. There’s a force preventing me from entering. I look through the peephole.
It’s there, staring at me from the putrid fungus bed, standing on top of it. A man wearing a fox mask, bulky, bent double as if carrying a large weight on his back. Hepszcord is in his fist.
I pool through the keyhole. The man’s head tilts to the side like a dog’s.
“Give him to me,” I say.
The Other makes a gagging noise deep in its throat and its head continues to tilt until it is upside down. I strike out, but there isn’t a man their anymore. Just emptiness and Hepszcord hanging in midair. I toss the entire mattress in frustration. Spore flies everywhere, but they are dead, they’ve been in Its power.
The Other laughs. Smoke from the fire is now leaking into the room from both the master bathroom door and the door to the hall. Heps is coughing steadily.
I would try to sneak him away if I thought the Other couldn’t see me. Sneak close and snatch him away before the Other knows what is happening, but it can see me, I’m sure of it.
“I don’t understand what you want,” I say.
It slurs at me. Not even words.
The smoke is much worse now, if I don’t save Heps soon he’ll suffocate. Now I fear we’re down wind, the house is in danger.
The Other laughs again. Heps shakes dangerously.
I charge, I hit nothing. Below some section of the house collapses in a deafening sound and flame. Heps drops, wheeling I catch him. The Other roars, but I’m already around and heading out the hole in the first bathroom’s wall. I head out and look for Heps’s family.
The garden is a sea of flame, the house is on the shore and the tide is coming in. The Other screams at me and in the distance I hear sirens.
Heps’s family is on a stone fence some ways distant, watching the destruction. The baby Heps dropped squeaks when he sees his father. I deposited him safely.
“Get out of here,” I say.
They chirp in dismay.
They go, Heps wheezing, but otherwise fine.
I return to the house. Brushing away smoke so I can see. I go to the library. I can’t think of a way to save the books. The exit is blocked by flame, but the Other arrives through it anyway. Invisible, it doesn’t feel well, I can sense its weakness. The meanness is gone. When the house goes, it will go. It mutters. Supplication. I ignore it.
Somewhere a support wall goes and I hear another part of the house thunder down. I wonder if I will vanish with the house. When the fire reaches the baby’s room, the place where my memories start, will I go out like a candle? The house shakes, smoke begins to filter into the library. All these works. Shakespeare, Plato, Tel, popular writers, obscure ones, books on politics, philosophy, war, love. The Other whimpers.
The fire comes in and takes the knowledge in gusts. Flame consumes paper and wood. The library collapses around me. The last thing I see in that place is the Other on its knees, hands shielding its head as books and support beams and sparks fall around it.